There was plenty of concern about emotion on this end in the first Missouri home game since the protests and the last home game for Gary Pinkel. But on a cold night in Columbia, the empty seats at kickoff helped ease those concerns immediately.
Tennessee didn't do anything immediately, but did two things consistently: run the football, and play lights out defense. When facing one of the best defenses in the country on the other sideline - Missouri came in fourth in the nation in yards per play allowed - you can still nitpick things like attempting five field goals, but you not only take this victory, you celebrate it.
We wish all the best, in health and life, to Gary Pinkel. On a night when so much emotion was in play, Tennessee excelled in businesslike fashion. Cam Sutton got things started with an interception, then the Vols attempted field goals on four of their first five drives, making three to build a 9-0 lead. By that point, it was abundantly clear Missouri's offense wasn't going to do anything of note against Tennessee's defense.
Let's be honest: Mizzou's offense is bad, and that's breaking news to no one. The Tigers entered the day 122nd of 128 teams in yards per play (good news: Vanderbilt was 121). But Tennessee's defense was great against them in a way we haven't seen the Big Orange be against an SEC foe in a long time. The Tigers averaged just 3.77 yards per play, with 50 of their 223 yards coming on their lone scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Mizzou was just 2 of 15 on third down, and quarterback Drew Lock was 13 of 30 for 135 yards. Tennessee was everywhere on everything Missouri wanted to do, looking like some of the better Vol defenses of the past.
Josh Dobbs again struggled to throw the ball against Missouri, 16 of 24 for just 89 yards. But our quarterback was back to form with his legs, getting 54 yards on 10 carries and the game's only touchdown on a big third down. Dobbs' presence and a redemptive night from the offensive line paved the way for a massive rushing total of 248 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.
There have been some familiar complaints with the Tennessee offense this year, but if you feel them creeping into the conversation tonight remember this: Missouri was 14th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 113.7 yards per game on average. And they were fourth nationally in yards per carry allowed at 2.98. Tennessee blew up both of those numbers tonight, besting Vanderbilt's season-high total of 168 yards against Mizzou by 80 yards and becoming the first team to run for more than four yards per carry against the Tigers this fall. Dobbs did enough, Alvin Kamara added 43 yards on seven carries, and Jalen Hurd was a monster: 34 carries, 151 yards, and no easy takedowns.
Tennessee's offensive line, so maligned all of last and much of this year, turned in one of their best performances all things considered. Jashon Robertson's presence certainly helped in that department, but everyone gets credit for keeping Josh Dobbs sack free and paving the way for such an enormous rushing night.
This was a big win for the Vols, who secured their first seven-win regular season since 2009 and will go for the first eight-win regular season since 2007 next week in a match-up that will look a lot like this one. The Vols have won four in a row, and will have more momentum than any of their bowl brethren other than the winner of the Egg Bowl next week, which could give the Vols an edge when bids are handed out. And Tennessee is simply playing with an edge right now, continuing to look like the good team we thought they were earlier in the year and the one they're still becoming. The Vols went into a cauldron of emotion against a great defense and took care of business. Great job by Butch Jones and all involved tonight.